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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17277


Mr BARTLETT (2:04 PM) —My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister advise the House of steps being taken by the government to review laws relating to custody and child support arrangements in Australia?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Macquarie for that question. The member for Macquarie, in common with many members on this side of the House—and, I am sure, many members on the other side of the House—is aware that within the Australian community there is a level of concern about and unhappiness with the operation of matters relating to the custody of children following marriage breakdown and a measure of unhappiness with the operation of the Child Support Agency.

The government want to respond to that concern because we believe that these are issues that go to the heart of personal happiness for millions of Australians. We all aspire to an ideal but an ideal is never realised in an overwhelming majority of cases, and the obligation of society when a marriage breaks down is to have arrangements which are in the best interests of children but which also have proper regard to the interests of the parents of those children. I have expressed before, and I will say it again, that one of the regrettable features of society at the present time is that far too many young boys are growing up without proper male role models. They are not infrequently in the overwhelming care and custody of their mothers, which is understandable. If they do not have older brothers or uncles they closely relate to—and with an overwhelming number of teachers being female, in primary schools in particular—many young Australian boys are at the age of 15 or 16 before they have a male role model with whom they can identify.

I do not imagine that any one legislative change or pronouncement can alter that, but I think as a national parliament—because this is a national responsibility—there are things that we can do about it. Having regard to that, and particularly to the recent response to the report of the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group, I will be sending a reference to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs. That reference will, amongst other things, while noting that the best interest of the child is the paramount consideration, be asking the committee to investigate what other factors should be taken into account in deciding the respective time each parent should spend with their children post separation, in particular whether there should be a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent and, if so, in what circumstances such a presumption could be rebutted.

The committee will also be asked to investigate in what circumstances a court should order that children of separated parents have contact with other persons, including their grandparents. This is an issue that I think is quite properly in the same genre as the other matters I have discussed. We will also be asking the committee to examine whether the existing child support formula works fairly for both parents in relation to their care of, and contact with, their children, because—as members on this side of the House and particularly the member for Macquarie will know—there are many non-custodial parents in Australia who are profoundly unhappy with the existing formula used by the Child Support Agency and wish that matter to be examined.

We are asking the committee to report to the parliament by 31 December. There is no point giving it two or three years. I think that six months, given the intensity and amount of public interest in this matter, is an appropriate period of time. I look forward to the work and the report of that committee. I encourage the committee not to see its remit as a licence to recommend large increases in the expenditure of taxpayers' money but rather to look at the structure of these arrangements. I cannot think of anything that is more important to millions of Australians than current custody arrangements. This issue is properly the concern of the national parliament, and I hope it brings forth the genuine bipartisan involvement of the opposition.